tick tock

What the heck is the Colorado school accountability clock? (And 14 other questions you might ask.)

On Thursday, Colorado’s accountability clock chimes for a dozen schools and five school districts that have failed to show enough academic improvement on state tests during the last seven years.

That means time is up for the schools and districts. State officials are about to intervene in the hopes of setting them on the right course.

Before the State Board of Education begins this work at its Thursday meeting, we’ve rounded up some questions — and answers — about how we got here and how this all works:

What is the state’s accountability clock?

“The clock” is the colloquial term lawmakers, state education department officials and some school leaders use to describe the state’s school accountability law. In 2009, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 163, an update to Colorado’s original accountability law. The law defines how the state measures the quality of schools and school districts, reports it to the public and intervenes if they don’t improve fast enough.

How is school quality measured?

Student performance on state standardized tests in math and English is by far the biggest factor in the ratings.

The state calculates how much students learn year-over-year compared to students at the same starting point. This “growth data” makes up the lion’s share of the report. How many students are meeting the state’s expectations on subject matter — in other words, whether students are at grade level — is a lesser factor.

High schools and school districts also are evaluated on a school’s composite score on college entrance exams juniors take, and how many students graduate or drop out.

Schools can earn one of four ratings. Going from the highest to lowest, they are: performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround. School districts can earn one of five ratings: distinction, performance, improvement, priority improvement and turnaround.

What happens if my school or school district earns one of the two lowest ratings?

Nothing off the bat. But if a school or school district consistently earns one of the two lowest ratings for five years, the state is required to step in.

If schools and districts only have five years to improve, why has the state waited seven years to take action on these first schools?

The timeline is muddled for two reasons.

First, the law built in a sort of buffer year after the fifth strike that allows schools and the state time to plan corrective actions. Second, because the state changed the tests measuring student achievement, lawmakers in 2015 called a one-year time-out.

So how is the state going to step in?

The state has a menu of options for both schools and districts.

For a persistently struggling school, the state may direct the local school board to:

  • Close it.
  • Hand it over to a charter management organization.
  • Contract with a third party to help run the school.
  • Create an innovation plan that spells out strategies and waivers from school and state policy to boost student learning.

For districts, the state has all of the above options, but may also direct the local school board to:

  • Merge with a nearby high-performing district (although this would require a ballot question — and this option is a very hard sell politically).
  • Hire a third party to help manage all or some portion of the school district.
  • Apply for innovation status district-wide.

There’s also an “other” option for school districts?

That part of the law is ambiguous. But state officials take it to mean some combination of the options.

What is innovation status, and an innovation plan?

Innovation schools were created by lawmakers in 2008. When schools or districts apply for innovation status, they’re required to create a plan that does two things. First, they must request a series of waivers from local policy or state law they believe are blocking them from boosting student achievement. Second, they must detail the policies they want to put in place.

Schools often seek flexibility over hiring and firing practices, curriculum and the school district calendar (usually, longer school years or longer days).

Some members of the state board have raised numerous concerns about struggling schools seeking more autonomy through innovation. This is something worth watching as the board considers its options.

Can the state just take over schools like they do in Tennessee or New Jersey?

No. Colorado’s constitutional local control provisions prohibit the state from taking direct control of a school. The local school board still has the ultimate control over schools, even if they haven’t improved in five years.

The state does, however, have some leverage on school districts: accreditation.

What’s accreditation?

Accreditation is basically a seal of approval that signals to the community the school district is meeting all of the state’s expectations and is paying its bills on time. (Seriously, if a school district isn’t fiscally sound, the state can yank its accreditation. But that’s a different story.)

What if the local school board doesn’t agree with the state board’s direction?

This is where the law starts to get really murky.

If a school district with one of the three highest ratings has a school on the clock and refuses to take action, the state board can lower the district’s rating to one of the lowest.

If a school district is on the clock and refuses to take action, the state board can revoke its accreditation.

What happens if a district loses accreditation?

No one really knows. It’s never happened in Colorado before.

Several years ago, the department suggested that losing accreditation would put students’ high school diplomas in jeopardy. It also suggested the state could withhold federal funding. (It can’t withhold state funding.)

But the department has backed off that stance. Now, the department considers the stigma of accreditation loss as enough of a punishment.

What’s going to happen during the next couple of months?

Between now and June, the state board will meet with each school and district twice.

The first meeting will be a quasi-judicial hearing. The department will present their suggestions on what the schools should do, and the schools will have a chance to define their own destiny.

Then a month later, the board will make its ruling on changes the districts and schools should make.

Under state law, this all has to be done by June 30.

What happens after June 30?

The law is silent on how the department is supposed to monitor the schools’ and districts’ progress.

However, department officials and the state board are working under the interpretation that schools and districts are to continue receiving annual quality reviews. If a district or school makes enough progress to earn a higher rating, the clock is reset for them. If the district or school continues to struggle, the state could require additional changes.

Are school districts really going to go along with this?

Early evidence suggests yes. However, the state education department has requested extra money from the state legislature to pay for increased legal services if rumored threats of lawsuits from some school districts become reality.

Is there any evidence this will work?

State intervention is a hotly debated topic across the country. And like many things in education, the results are mixed.

One study in Tennessee found that the struggling Shelby County School District was doing a better job of improving schools under their control compared to those in the district managed by the state.

However, Massachusetts has had some success.

Both of these states had more authority than Colorado, so it’s not a direct comparison.

Some improvements

Aurora Public Schools improves enough to dodge state action, mixed results elsewhere in new preliminary state ratings

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Aurora Public Schools has improved enough to pull itself off the state’s watchlist for persistent low performance, according to preliminary state ratings made public Wednesday.

The district of about 40,000 students was staring at state intervention if it didn’t move the needle enough. Last year marked the first time Colorado schools and districts faced such a fate under the current accountability law, and Aurora would have been the largest district on a state-ordered plan.

The district saved itself by earning a state rating of “improvement,” no longer in the bottom two categories of performance.

“We’re excited about our momentum,” Superintendent Rico Munn said. “We are moving in the right direction.”

Colorado Department of Education

Improvements to Aurora’s state test scores and its high school graduation rate helped move the district’s rating up. Munn credited work in the district helping teachers align their instruction to state standards, and focusing on individual students.

“It’s the culture that says we need to make sure we recognize and identify where our kids are,” Munn said.

No district faces state sanctions for too many consecutive years of low ratings, but a handful of schools might based on the preliminary ratings. Some of the schools are alternative education schools, which won’t get their preliminary ratings until next month.

Schools that may face state intervention if preliminary ratings don’t change

  • Martinez Elementary School, Greeley
  • Manaugh Elementary School, Montezuma-Cortez
  • EDCSD: Colorado Cyber School, Douglas

Last year, five districts and a dozen schools were the first to reach the end of the rope and faced state action in the spring. State officials could have closed schools, turned them over to charters or merged districts. But they used a lighter hand, working with local educators to create improvement plans.

Those districts and schools are now on two- and three-year deadlines to improve or face possible additional consequences.

Their performance in year one, based on Wednesday’s preliminary ratings, was mixed. One district, Julesburg, already improved as much as it needed to under its state plan.

“People are doing the work, and it takes time to do the work,” said Alyssa Pearson, the state education department’s associate commissioner for accountability and performance.

The Commerce City-based school district Adams 14 is already celebrating a step in the right direction toward meeting its improvement goal on time.

Adams 14 moved up one level in rating categories from “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, to “turnaround on priority improvement.” Ten of its 11 schools saw improved ratings from last year. One school, Kearney Middle School, is now the first in the district with a “performance” rating — the highest rating possible for a school.

“We’re just very happy and motivated,” Superintendent Javier Abrego said.

Kearney’s principal told students at a celebration Wednesday morning that they now have to work even harder and asked students to listen to their teachers.

“You know what’s harder than getting to the top?” Principal Veronica Jeffers asked. “It’s staying there.”

Westminster Public Schools as a district made small improvements, earning 41.5 percent of points this year, up from 40 percent last year. That was not quite enough to move up in ratings, but just a few points away from an improvement rating that is the the district’s goal in its state-ordered plan.

Districts have until Oct. 16 to contest the preliminary ratings. State officials will consider whether the concerns are valid and whether new evidence of performance is convincing before finalizing ratings later this fall.

Some of the requests to reconsider will be based on low test participation. In some cases, the state lowered ratings if not enough students took state tests, reasoning that it was hard to know whether the scores were representative of an entire school. Westminster and Aurora officials already have said they will ask for ratings to be reconsidered because of the participation issue.

Aurora Central High School, a school that ran out of time on the accountability clock last year and is now under a state plan, would have earned enough points to improve its rating from turnaround to priority improvement based on its scores.

But because of low test participation on one key test — just 84.9 percent of sophomores took the PSAT — the preliminary rating was knocked back down to turnaround.

Aurora superintendent Munn said the district likely will ask the state to reconsider that decision.

After the ratings are final, hearings will be scheduled in the spring for the state board to make final determinations on the fate of the low-performing schools.

Schools and districts may provide the state with additional information to boost their ratings before they’re finalized later this year. In previous years, only a few dozen schools would request a rating increase. However, since some schools have seen participation in testing plummet, more schools are asking the state to take a second look.

More than 200 schools and 40 districts requested a higher rating last year.

Chalkbeat’s Nic Garcia contributed information to this report. 

looking inside

Adams 14 district to keep closer eye on each school as part of state improvement plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Sixth-grade science teacher Monica Wisniewski works with Pija Williams Terralee, left, and Myth Cubbison at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. Kearney is in Adams County School District 14.

As part of an improvement plan negotiated with the state, the Adams 14 school district in Commerce City has developed a new system for monitoring progress at schools meant to more quickly arm leaders with information about what’s working and what isn’t.

The system, developed with guidance from the state, includes regular walkthroughs at schools by district leaders, data tracking, and new staff and student surveys.

Such diligent tracking of school performance is more common at larger districts, and could be seen as a burden for districts with fewer resources. But Adams 14 officials say they are welcoming the opportunity and are optimistic about the benefits.

“What doesn’t get monitored doesn’t get done,” said Aracelia Burgos, chief academic officer for the 7,500-student district. “…. We know we need to be data-driven.”

The process will kick into gear starting next month, when district leaders begin weekly walkthroughs of all 11 schools and an early learning center. Different leaders are assigned different schools, and those in the mix include Superintendent Javier Abrego, the chief academic officer, director of English language development and director of educator effectiveness.

Three of the visits will be brief — checking on whether the school feels welcoming, safe and whether students are engaged.

Then, once a month, the school visit will be more formal. District leaders will follow a sort of rubric that is being finalized with the state to determine if teachers are doing good work and if students seem to be learning.

Several other districts on state improvement plans are in the process of creating similar plans. Adams 14 was among the schools and districts that faced state intervention because of more than five years of low performance, based in part on an increasing drop-out rate and low growth scores on state tests.

Without a system of its own, Adams 14 would be reliant on school ratings provided by the state, which are based mostly on state test scores and are not as timely.

Among larger districts that track their own schools’ performance, Denver Public Schools has a more elaborate system that includes giving each school a rating that takes more factors into account than the state ratings.

The same system wouldn’t necessarily be feasible for a district the size of Adams 14, district officials have said.

The point of any system, however, is for district officials to be engaged with what’s happening in schools, and knowing how they’re performing early on, rather than waiting for a state rating.

Eventually, the monitoring plan should improve school performance if district leaders are able to detect problems early on and respond quickly to fix them. It should also create a record of what has been tried and what has worked that could help if district officials want to contest a state rating of their schools or district in the future.

“The first bar is really, ‘Did you design something?’ and second is, ‘Are you implementing it?’” said Lisa Medler, executive director of improvement planning for the state. Medler has worked with Adams 14 officials to design their school monitoring process.

The Colorado Department of Education is thinking about how to create a template for district-level school monitoring, Medler said. But the benefit of each district working on its own plan is that it’s tailored to the district’s own goals and resources, especially since the requirement to create the plan doesn’t come with funding for it. (Adams 14 officials said its new school monitoring system does not carry any additional costs).

“It’s really built on their context,” Medler said. “It’s taking advantage of whatever assessment tools, like interim or benchmark tools they have already.”

To make tracking data easier, all seven elementary schools are now using the same district-level periodic tests to measure growth rather than getting to pick their own. And to make sure the information is used, teachers now have built-in common planning time for about an hour a week.

Once a month, when district leaders visit schools for the longer walkthrough, they’ll also sit down with school leadership to look at test and attendance data. The monitoring plan has target goals for how many students are on reading plans, for attendance rates and growth scores on interim tests.

If the district leaders see a school isn’t meeting those targets throughout the year, they could order teachers to do an online training course or they could ask a coach to work with them.

When district leaders find a teacher doing great work, the district will record that teacher in action and make it available online for the other district teachers to learn from.

“We want to be supportive,” said Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, the director of educator effectiveness and director of secondary education. She started some school observations last year working with a consultant and more narrowly looking at work in classrooms.

From that experience, Trinidad-Sheahan said she knows the classroom and school monitoring needs to create ongoing conversations to be successful.

The new process already has made the district’s leadership team more effective at working together, officials say.

“It’s a lot of energy for us because we’re such a small community,” Burgos said. “Now that we’ve come together as a cohesive group, that’s important and we’re feeling very confident.”